Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said “I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.
Ellen Oh talks about how enough isn’t being done to promote diversity in children’s literature. Yes, there are great publishers whose missions are diversity and yes some major publishers have diversity imprints, and yes it’s been in the new recently (the Myers’ Times articles and a recent CNN article) and yes there are PoC authors being published, but it’s still not enough.
We can’t settle. Less than 10% of children’s literature is by People of Color. We shouldn’t aim for 10% and consider it done when we reach it. Recently, admissions statistics for my alma mater were told to me and the percentages for admission for African-American students was 6%, but the school was proud of their 6%. For it to be better than last year is great, but an air of “let’s continue to do even better” was missing. Maybe it’s the idea of celebrating too early. I’m glad representation is increasing, but let’s do more work before popping the champagne at every turn.
The passage above is so real to me, because I fell off of writing for a long time because I wasn’t feeling it, and I think that reason was because I was writing characters who were white, while I was surrounded by people of color. My characters had been white washed and it took me until recently to consciously acknowledge this fact and it’s still taking me effort to stop defaulting my characters to white. But because most of the characters I read are white, my brain has taken to imagining all characters as white. I need to force my own imagination to populate itself with people of color and I’ve been reading instances where others had to do the same. A terrible thing for self-esteem and representation. More authors of color, especially in the children’s book industry would be so beneficial to children seeing themselves positively both in the world and their own imagination.